Interurban way station

I love those moments when I stumble across an interesting find that I wasn’t expecting.

As I left the Fairmount Historical Museum and started walking down the road, something made me take a more careful look to my right. In the back yard of the museum, near the sidewalk was an odd concrete structure. A hexagonal roofed structure maybe three feet across.

I moved closer to read the plaque on the side. It was a way station. A passenger waiting station for the interurban.

How fun! Interurban rail lines used to populate Indiana towns. With the growing popularity of the car, the interurbans disappeared. (The South Shore, which runs from South Bend to downtown Chicago is the sole remaining interurban in Indiana.)

But here was a remnant of this former mode of transportation. The structure was small. Even given the smaller size of Americans during that time, it couldn’t have held more than a few people who were comfortable being quite, um, friendly.

I began to wonder about the location of the station and where the interurban ran. Next to the way station stands a street light. On the other side is a bench and a stone trough with a hand water pump, suggesting a rest stop for horses as well as people.

In hindsight, I wish I snapped a photo. (How often do you see an interurban waiting station?!). Thankfully, I found photos of it here.

Spirit of Jasper

Felton’s Roaring Camp & Big Trees Railroad, the Napa Valley Wine Train, Mendocino’s Historic Skunk Train, the French Lick Scenic Railway, and the Spirit of Jasper. I seem to be drawn to historic trains.

I enjoyed train rides through the redwood forests in Northern California, where trains were used for logging generations ago. The cars were either open air or accommodated passengers hanging out at the end of cars to take in the sights better. I have distinct memories of the crisp California air as we chugged through majestic redwood forests, over bridges, and through tunnels—and snapping photo after photo of the beautiful scenery.

I miss that. The historic trains in Indiana have a different feel to them. Passengers are sequestered inside and not allowed outside the train compartments. No chance to enjoy the scenery from a closer perspective. No chance to snap photos as we wind through Indiana forest. But it is still neat to ride historic trains down historic tracks.

My most recent train excursion was on the Spirit of Jasper, a ride and dine experience. The train consisted of three different types of cars: the Club Car, the Lounge Car, and the Parlour (yes, parlour with a u) Car.

The Club Car was built in the 1940s as an overnight coach car for the Milwaukee Railroad. Jasper obtained it in 2006. The layout of the car is what I expected from a typical passenger car: sets of four seats facing either with a small table in between. The Lounge Car was built between 1917 and 1922. During WWI, it was used to transport coffins of the war dead (!). Tables extend from the sides with moveable chairs around them, like what you may see in a restaurant. The Parlour Car is kind of what you would expect—cushy seating lining either side of the car with a drink bar. It was originally built in the 1940s and used as a military hospital car. All of the cars were acquired by the city of Jasper in 2006 and restored by individuals and businesses.

The Ride and Dine took me 9 miles up the tracks and back, through forests and past the boyhood home of Larry Bird. Most of the train ride was during daylight, which allowed views of the trees and fields along the track. As twilight descended, I spied a lovely chocolate-colored buck standing majestically in the middle of a gravel road that wound through the trees.

A famous local restaurant, Schnitzelbank, catered the meal. Despite the French origin of the county’s name, the ancestors of Dubois County are heavily German. Although boasting Germany ancestry myself, German fare is not really my cup of tea. But the menu on the date I rode the train didn’t seem particularly German to me: pulled BBQ pork (a dish that Hoosiers seem to be enamored with), Italian chicken breast (a bit dry), cheesy potato casserole (potatoes and cheese…need I say more?), baked beans (tasty), steamed broccoli (not overcooked!), 7 layer salad (refreshing), dinner rolls, and banana pudding (not my choice—I would prefer chocolate—but it was quite good).

The train ride was enjoyable with the smooth rocking of the train and the trees rolling by producing almost a meditative state. Groups of families and friends were enjoying an evening of conversation. One nearby family initiated a conversation with me: parents and a teenage boy. To my surprise, I discovered that they were planning to go to Cupertino for a family trip. Cupertino, CA? Yes.

Seeing how Cupertino is usually not a top travel destination, I was intrigued. Why Cupertino? The son is obsessed with Apple so they are going to visit Apple. Hmmmm…knowing Apple’s secret-like paranoia (we couldn’t get a tour of Apple for women in STEM on a government-sponsored exchange that I was a part of), I gently suggested that they confirm that Apple allows people to tour their facilities before leaving on their trip.

Other than this impromptu conversation before dinner, I was mostly left to enjoy the train ride on my own. A waitress on the train stopped at my table to ask if I was traveling alone. When I confirmed, she was completely flabbergasted. The idea of someone doing something alone was clearly horrifying to her. I inwardly sighed. I hadn’t encountered someone quite so blatant with their own insecurities on one of my many solo ventures, though I assume that many others may have thought the same thing that she verbalized.

The Spirit of Jasper was a neat experience—I am glad I rode it and will look for others during the Indiana leg of my adventure—but my favorite historic train rides are through redwood forests in California.

The real McCoy

Inventors and gandy dancers. African Americans had a huge impact on the railroad industry. Exhibits at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis show this dichotomy between the African-American experiences with the early railroad.

A video in the exhibit highlights gandy dancers, the low-paid manual laborers who repaired the tracks. In the video, former gandy dancers re-enact their work and the songs that they used to sing as they worked.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, I saw information about three African-American inventors who made significant contributions to the early railroad industry.

Andrew J. Beard (1849-1921), a former slave, invented the first automatic railroad car coupler, which helped bring safety and automation to what was a very dangerous and manual process of coupling train cars.

Elijah McCoy (1844-1929), a free man of African descent, invented a lubricator that could lubricate a train engine while in motion. We have him to thank for the term “real McCoy”. Similar lubricators existed, but Elijah’s lubricator cap was the “real McCoy”.

Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) patented a telegraphony (a combination of a telegraph and telephone) and then later a synchronous multiplex railway telegraph, which allowed messages to be sent to and from a moving train. He was known, the placard mentioned, as the “black Edison”. (“Hmmm,” I thought, “Or Edison was the white Woods.”)

All three men were prolific inventors. Beard disappeared from historical records after patenting his coupler in 1897. McCoy was recognized by Booker T. Washington in 1909 as being the black inventor with the most patents. Woods had the honor of defeating two patent challenges by Edison and then turning down a job offer from him.